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The Interview with Catherine Walter/Michael Swan and Catherine Walter are coauthors of How English Works which was awarded  the Duke Of Edinburgh English-Speaking Union Award in 1997.

Taken from Oxford University Press

 What was your very first job?

Catherine Walter: I was attending a Catholic elementary school in the United States. The Sisters at the school asked me to take a little German girl aside for an hour a day and speak English with her. So my very first job, at the age of 9, was teaching English as a foreign language.

 Did you always want to be a teacher?

CW: Yes, teaching has been a constant theme.

 When you went to university, did you study Education?

CW: Not at all! I started off studying Biology and did two years of a Biology degree. But I was at a liberal arts college in America, where you are required to show proficiency in a living foreign language; my only foreign language was Latin. When I started taking French, I was just so knocked over by the beauty of the language that I changed majors, even though it took me a bit longer to finish.

 Is that when you decided to move to France?

CW: Yes, because I felt that I had come by a rather unorthodox path to a French degree, I decided I wanted to improve my French and get a knowledge of the culture. So, without telling anyone my plans - I didn't have much money - I decided that I would do a Licence in Linguistics and French Literature at the Sorbonne.

 When did you take your first teaching job?

CW: When I finished my degree at the Sorbonne, I wanted to get a bit of experience teaching EFL. So I went around to the different TEFL schools in Paris and chose the one I thought was the best. That was International House. I did their initial TEFL course and one thing lead to another. It was kind of hard to leave Paris, so I stayed on and did the RSA Dip and continued to teach and do teacher training in Paris.

 What made you start writing?

CW: I had an idea for a book but I don't think I would have got down to writing it because life was so busy. But when my first child was born, he was so unwell that even after a year's leave without pay, I didn't feel I could return to my job. So I had to find something that I could do from my home and writing seemed the logical thing to do. Otherwise I would not have chosen to write full time because basically I think of myself as a teacher and that's what I feel most comfortable doing.

 Tell us about the background to writing How English Works.

CW: It's a book that had been in the back of our minds for a long time. Michael had promised it to OUP even before we started writing The Cambridge English Course and of course the ideas behind it evolved over those many years. When the time came to honour the obligation, Michael asked if I would co-author it. Once we made the decision to start it took a year and a half to write, but Mike likes to say that it took us 30 years to pile up the ammunition and a year and a half to shoot it off!

 How did you find out that you'd won the Duke of Edinburgh English-Speaking Union Award?

CW: I was in Cambridge and got a message to ring Michael. Of course my first thought was that one of the kids had had an accident. I immediately phoned and to my surprise, he said that we had won the Award. After my first surge of delight and whoop of joy, my second thought was 'What am I going to wear?'.

  What was the award ceremony like?

CW: The ceremony was in the 'cinema' of Buckingham Palace, which doesn't look like a cinema at all. Baroness Brigstock opened the ceremony and introduced the Duke of Edinburgh. Then Valerie Mitchell, Director of the English-Speaking Union, spoke about the Award and relayed some of the very kind words that the assessors had said about How English Works. Then, the big moment, I went up with Stewart Melluish, our editor, and Richard Morris, the designer, to receive the certificates and the Award itself, a beautiful Edinburgh crystal bowl etched with thistles. The Duke shook my hand. I remembered my curtsey.

 What do you like best about being an ELT author?

CW: I suppose it's knowing that you're doing some good. It's a lonely job compared to teaching and that's one of the reasons that I prefer teaching. I suppose the most rewarding thing is to hear from the people who tell us that we helped them become better teachers... that by using our books and by thinking about how we deal with pedagogy in our books, they've been able to stand on our shoulders and become better teachers themselves. I think that's the most rewarding thing.

 When it comes to the writing process, how disciplined are you?

CW: With deadlines, you usually don't have any choice about that! We sit down; we map out the book; we divide it into bits; then Michael goes off to his study and he does a bit, and I go off to my study and I do a bit. Then we exchange our bits and criticize. Sometimes it's completely back to the drawing board, but more often it's an adjustment here and there.

 You must be very good at receiving criticism.

CW: Well I guess we are! We agree on the basics... and we respect each other. So if I tell him that something is wrong with one of his lessons, or he tells me that there's something that doesn't work in one of mine, I don't take it as impugning my basic ability to write that lesson. We take it for what it is. No, we work very constructively.

 How do you feel when you have finished a book?

CW: It's always a sense of relief and accomplishment. We're lucky because we work in tandem so we know we're fairly confident once we hand in a manuscript that it's already been through our fairly tough, mutually-critical process.

We were delighted with How English Works. We felt it had the right shape and the right length. We had had excellent editorial input from Stewart Melluish at OUP. We were pleased with the way things came out. But we were even more pleased when we saw the actual design of the book, because we really felt that Richard Morris had produced a design that was at least as good as the content. A good design has to be clear, accessible, and attractive and I think that Richard's done a grand job on How English Works.

 What makes a good ELT teacher?

CW:A good ELT teacher has to be good with and sensitive to language, and good with and sensitive to people.

If you've got a teacher who's very good at language and insensitive to people, then the learning process doesn't happen as it should. If you've got a teacher who's very good with people but who's not good at the language, accurate and well-staged information about the language will be missing. Obviously when you start teaching, you can't know everything about a language but you've got to have a basic knowledge of a language and some kind of sensitivity to how a language works, and some knowledge of how people learn.

 Do you see any big changesahead for ELT?

CW: It's very hard to know. Some people think the information technology revolution is going to make an enormous difference. I'm a bit sceptical though. I worked as an RSA assessor for a long time and from my experience, a good language teacher is sensitive to what's going on in the classroom on a microsecond by microsecond basis, and makes adjustments. It's almost a skill that's not conscious. You can'tget this out of a computer, no matter how sophisticated it is; no matterwhat the programme is. You're not going to get this.

I think that new technology can help. I think it's wonderful and exciting, and there are all sorts of exciting ways that teachers canuse new technology in the classroom. But you can't replace a teacher.

Do you see students benefiting from the Internet?

CW: If we're talking about students in the developed world, in countries where a lot of people have access to computers, then yes. Now what percentage that is of language learners throughout the world is a big question mark. Certainly the Internet can give students access to a wide variety of things. It could be seen as something to take a load off some of the teacher. But I don't think it will ever replace a teacher.

 How do you see authors benefiting from the Internet?

CW: Well, I think that anybody who does any kind of research inevitably benefits from the Internet. You've seen from How English Works that we take material from all kinds of places and we're just as likely to talk about a national park in America, or how some kind of machine works, or what the process of making paper is, or any number of things. And obviously, it's wonderful to key a few words into a search engine and find out what's there.

 How would you sum up your philosophy as an ELT author?

CW: Mike and I like to say that it's a question of respect. Respect for the language - so that you're not pretending that the language is easier than it is, or that it's only grammar, or only vocabulary, or only functions. Or that just giving people a variety of tasks is automatically going to produce the grammar that you need or the functions that you need. Respecting the language as a complex entity.

And respect for the learner. Realizing that our learners are not learning a first language, so they come to this experience as whole people. With lives, with humour, with experiences, with views, with opinions, with feelings. In order to help them learn, you need to take account of those things insofaras you can. Maybe some of them learn better visually, and some of them learn better kinaesthetically, and some of them learn better orally. Respect that your learners are whole people.

And respect for teachers. In the classroom, the teacher is the most important person: to give a focus to the class; to act as a repository of the knowledge; to be a resource for the students; to guide the group;to be sensitive to what's going on; and to help people. In our books, we try our best to give as much support and respect to the teacher as possible, to make his or her job as easy as possible.

 If you hadn't gone into ELT, what would you like to have done?

 CW: I like to think I could have made a good journalist because I enjoy writing and I find it easy to get on with all sorts of people. I feel comfortable in most situations so I think I wouldn't have had trouble talking to homeless people or the Prime Minister or whoever. I'm very determined and I work well under pressure. So I think I would have enjoyed being a journalist, and I think I would have been a decent journalist.

 What are your interests outside ELT?

CW: I've always tried to keep fit and about 8 years ago I started training in karate with my son. It's a style called Wado Ryu karate, based on evasion and speed. It was developed by a man who was not very big so it's ideal for someone like me - a woman who's quite slight.

As a teacher, I've always been committed to continuing to learn because I think you have to keep in your mind what it's like to be a learner. And it's especially good as I have very little talent for karate so I have to work very, very hard at it. It's good for me to see what it's like to learn something when you're not gifted for it.

Other sports I enjoy are cross country skiing, mountain walking and glacier climbing.

I've also had a long term interest in prison reform and I have a connection with Grendon Prison, a top security prison outside Aylesbury which is a therapeutic community. It's a pioneering prison that started in the 1960s and whose lessons are finally beginning to be taken on board by the prison system. So I visit there regularly. What else? Well, I'm also a member of Amnesty International. I regularly write Amnesty letters.

 What is your favourite piece of music?

CW: Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, without a question. I could listen to it everyday for the rest of my lifeand be perfectly happy. If I get run over by a bus on the way out of here, please play me the final quintet from The Marraige of Figaro in my hospital bed - I'll either wake up or die happy.

 What famous or historical character would you most like to meet?

CW: Well, today my answer is Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun who was a painter around the time of the French Revolution, at a time when women weren't easily painters. I love her paintings. I haven't seen that many of them in the originals but I am just drawn toher work. There's just something about her sympathy with her sitters. Here is someone who is strong; who is creative; and who at the same time hasa great bond with the people that she's painting. And she managed to continue her work in pretty rocky times. So I would love to meet her


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